This source book offers a comprehensive treatment of the solitary religious lives in England in the late Middle Ages. It covers both enclosed anchorites or recluses and freely-wandering hermits, and explores the relation between them. The sources selected for the volume are designed to complement better-known works connected with the solitary lives, such as the anchoritic guide Ancrene Wisse, or St Aelred of Rievaulx’s rule for his sister; or late medieval mystical authors including the hermit Richard Rolle or the anchorite Julian of Norwich. They illustrate the range of solitary lives that were possible in late medieval England, practical considerations around questions of material support, prescribed ideals of behaviour, and spiritual aspiration. It also covers the mechanisms and structures that were put in place by both civil and religious authorities to administer and regulate the vocations. Coverage extends into the Reformation period to include evidence for the fate of solitaries during the dissolutions and their aftermath. The material selected includes visual sources, such as manuscript illustrations, architectural plans and photographs of standing remains, as well as excerpts from texts. Most of the latter are translated here for the first time, and a significant proportion are taken from previously unpublished sources.
Self-fashioning and sanctity in late medieval English mystical literature
self-fashioning and sanctity in late
medieval English mystical literature
‘Dere lord Ihesu mercy, þat welle art of mercy, why wyl not myn
herte breste and cleue in-two?’1 So begins the shorter of RichardRolle’s Meditations on the Passion, a fourteenth-century affective
devotional text that describes the speaker’s imagined witnessing of
Christ’s passion. Noteworthy here is the use of pronouns: while the
Meditations is in a large sense for its audience’s spiritual benefit,
the speaker’s focus is on his own emotional state; it is
Chapter 58 of The Book of Margery Kempe documents how a priest new to Bishop’s Lynn takes on an eight-year commitment to read scriptural and devotional works to Margery Kempe, thus enhancing both her and his own spiritual expertise. Amongst the works they read and discuss together are Bridget of Sweden’s revelations, works by Walter Hilton, Bonaventure, and Richard Rolle. At the end of the list, however, Kempe offers a seemingly throwaway reference to ‘swech oþer’ works they also shared: ones which, so we contend, must have been both varied and numerous to fill up an eight-year period and which found their way into Margery’s writing in often covert – and possibly even unconscious – ways, as part of the Book’s strategy of authorisation. Although not named amongst the works listed in the Book, we argue that the ‘swech oþer’ texts, a term tantalisingly appended to the list of named books presented, would likely have included the thirteenth-century Liber specialis gratiae attributed to the Saxon nun Mechthild of Hackeborn (d. 1298). Drawing on some of the most vivid and compelling correlations between the two texts, we argue not only for Kempe’s familiarity with Mechthild’s writing but also for a much more central positioning of this earlier work within the literary and spiritual cultures of fifteenth-century England than has generally been understood.
Some time in the 1320s the young Yorkshireman RichardRolle
dropped out of Oxford and returned home. Soon afterwards, he took two of his
sister’s dresses and his father’s rainhood to a nearby wood
and, with a bit of amateur tailoring, fashioned a kind of habit for himself.
Putting it on, he arrived at ‘a confused likeness to a hermit’
[ 47 ]. The anecdote makes it clear
new type of spiritual expression was the road, both metaphorical and physical.
Metaphorical roads, labour and work in late eremitic literature
The great hermit writers of the late Middle Ages, RichardRolle,
Walter Hilton and the Cloud of Unknowing author, to some degree
all use the metaphor of the road.20 For Rolle, the idea of the road
is akin to life on earth. That is to say, that life on earth is transitory
and a journey, with the ultimate goal being achievement of unification with God in heaven and the fervour of divine love. Humanity’s
true work is to love God
Christ’s blood, previously understood
to appear in the form of the wine, had come to be of lesser importance.
Far from it: the late Middle Ages saw a flowering of devotion to the
Passion which included, as a crucial element of the supplicant’s
affective response, a special focus on the blood flowing from the
wounds of Christ. The early fourteenth-century mystic RichardRolle,
for example, uses the blood of Christ as a kind of repeated refrain to
focus his contemplation:
Swet Jhesu, I thank the with al my hert for al that blode that thou
so plenteuously bled in thy
. He should not have more clothes than he needs, but if he
does have any to spare, he should give them to the poor.
21. RichardRolle on food and drink, from The Form of Living
RichardRolle, Yorkshire hermit and the first of the so-called
‘fourteenth-century English mystics’, is known for his
forthright personality and the overflowing rapture of his mystical
writings. 30 Here, however, his
lengthy works of spiritual guidance. Much is
anonymous; some falsely foisted on to the great vernacular spiritual
writers of the period, like RichardRolle; other works are correctly
attributed to named individuals. Again, this presents problems, because
of the way texts were treated; and from the 1470s there is the
additional complication of the impact of printing as it affected aspects of